For the droves of adventurous Israelis backpacking their way around the world this High Holiday season – many of them young soldiers straight out of the army – Chabad-Luvabitch centers in such far flung tourist havens as Bangkok and San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, provide not only prayer services and a hot kosher meal, but also a warm, nurturing and spirited home away from home.

Thailand, especially, is a popular vacation destination, with an estimated 150,000 Israelis passing through annually and 4,000 turning up during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“We get all kinds of people,” says Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm, co-director of the Ohr Menachem Chabad House in Bangkok, which hosts between 300 and 400 Israeli travelers each week for Friday night Sabbath dinners. “It’s exciting every Shabbat. A lot of them did not grow up religious, so when they hear the blessing over the wine – and for some of them it’s their first time – there’s a real energy in the room.”

That energy will be quadrupled this Rosh Hashanah, with an expected 4,000 Israelis attending various Rosh Hashanah services and dinners across Thailand’s five different Chabad-Lubavitch centers.

“Many of the Israelis that are traveling come to us over Rosh Hashanah because they want a really positive start to the beginning of the year,” explains Wilhelm, who’s spent the last 17 years as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Bangkok.

“We’re expecting 1,000 Israelis for the first night of Rosh Hashanah,” says Rabbi Menachem Mendel Goldshmid, co-director of Chabad of Koh Samui in Surat Tani, Thailand, a sun-soaked island resort also popular with international travelers.

“We’re making a big party on the Chaweng Beach,” Goldshmid continues. “We’re building tents and setting up chairs right on the beach where we’re going to have Rosh Hashanah services and a big delicious meal. For a lot of these Israelis it really feels like a home away from home. The atmosphere is very exciting. They didn’t expect it. Afterwards, they always say how amazing it was.”

Bangkok is a popular hangout for young Israelis backpacking through Asia.
Bangkok is a popular hangout for young Israelis backpacking through Asia.

While Goldshmid estimates there are 100 full-time Jewish residents in Koh Samui, on any given Friday night some 300 to 400 guests can be found at the Chabad House for dinner, many of them tourists from Australia, Israel, the United States and Europe.

“We like to help everybody that we can, which includes helping them to organize their travels,” says Goldshmid.

Yael Kripor, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Cusco, Peru, calls the influx of Israelis to the historic South American city – and capital of the ancient Incan Empire – during Rosh Hashanah “a very special experience.”

“During the high season, which occurs around April, we usually get about 1,200 people that pass through for classes, meals and to eat at our kosher restaurant,” says Kripor. “September is when the rainy season begins, so it’s not as active, but we’ll usually have between 300 and 500 people here for the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and most of them are Israelis.”

While Kripor points out that many of these Israelis are not religiously observant on a daily basis, the celebration of Rosh Hashanah remains a very important part of their lives.

“A lot of them might not bother to go to synagogue when they are at home,” says Kripor. “But they come here because they want to feel some connection while they are out there alone in the world, to find something that reminds them of themselves and where they come from.”